The World’s Worst Evangelism Model: The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

A man in a short skirt pays no attention to where he scatters seed.

There are many things which make me uncomfortable about this parable.  In order to explain why, I need you to think about how this parable is normally preached.  In fact, it is how I’ve preached this parable in the past.  Without a doubt, the church has heard this parable as THE model of mission work and evangelism for two thousand years.  This is what we do:  we scatter seed (the word of God) on different types of soil (people) and sometimes it takes and sometimes it doesn’t.  Working against our evangelism in this agricultural metaphor are multiple forces:  the land, the environment, the weather, and evil incarnate.  Success, while as predictable as picking the right soil with the right weather, nutrients, and protection, appears to be as random as winning the lottery.

That bothers me.  If the ingredients to success are so obvious, why does the farmer waste his time sowing seeds in places that he knows will meet with failure?  Why does the farmer scatter seeds in places where he’s fully aware the rocks, thickets, and thorns will make it impossible for the seeds to bear any fruit?  Why set any seeds up for failure?  Why waste seeds?  Why not place everything in a location where good fruit is guaranteed? This frustrates me and I ask these questions for one reason:  in this parable, I believe we are the seeds.  You and I are the embodiment of the Good News represented by the seeds.  The message of Jesus Christ depends on our active engagement with the Gospel.  We are as much the seed, if not more so, than the soil.

Why is Jesus being cavalier with our opportunity to hear the good news?  Shouldn’t everyone get a chance to grow and respond to the gospel, no matter what kind of soil they’re living in?  What bothers me, really what scares me about this parable, is that it writes people off.  Some people, Jesus says, will never get it or only superficially understand the Good News.  This message of “trying, failing and discarding” doesn’t jive with “salvation” for everyone, including dirty rotten scoundrels like us.

Who gets to decide who’s flung from the seed bag into the good soil and why?  I think these are fair questions.  Here’s why.  The usual way this parable is preached goes something like this:  we talk about the soil shaping the personality of the seed.  If a seed lands among thorny plants does that make the seed thorny?  No, the seeds are all the same.  The seed doesn’t grow because if the environment it’s placed in.  But what preachers usually do is they turn the seeds that land in these “difficult” environments into the villains.  The seed seems to be culpability in its own failure.  Just because they’ve landed in the wrong neighborhood, we’re going to stereotype them.  But these seeds didn’t have a choice where the farmer flung them out, where they landed, or where they fell.  However, because they’ve landed in this predetermined spot we’ve decided is evil, the rest of their short lives, that’s going to turn out wrong too.  Because they fell in the wrong place with the flick of a farmer’s wrist, they bear no fruit.  Evil is allowed to invade their lives.  Famine, disease, drought, and suffering will strangle the life from the soil they call home.  The safety and security others take for granted, they will never know.   Why?  They fell in a different place.  They were scattered by the farmer.  Is this farmer Jesus?  As we consider what Jesus asks:  is this parable about the spreading of the Gospel or is it about the refugee crises in Darfur, Kenya, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, immigration from central and South America to the United States, racism in our country, and on and on.

Is Jesus telling us some people aren’t worth saving because they happen to be born at the wrong place and at the wrong time? I hope not.  This is what bothers me most about this parable.  Receiving the Good News and bearing fruit comes as nothing more than an accident of birth; like being born white, upper middle class, and wealthy in early 21st century America.  If you happen to land in the right place, you’ll get the benefits of being placed where God “wanted” you placed from the very beginning.  Your neighbors and friends, who began life with you in the same bag, weren’t so lucky.  They died of dehydration, were picked to death by crows, or didn’t have the same supportive earthly foundation.  You only had those things because you randomly landed in the right place.  But for the grace of God, that could have been you in the thorns or rocks.  You had nothing to do with your Good News; you didn’t make a choice to believe or not to believe in God.  The fruit you did bear just happened to you because all the external factors clicked.  It’s not an achievement if it was going to happen naturally.

Do you see the problem with the parable?  Salvation isn’t the luck of the draw.  If it’s not for everyone, at all times, in all types of soil, rocks, thorns, weather, wind, and rain, then it’s no good.  If salvation is some hereditary club, it’s useless.  Even after the crows have carried you and your Good News seed away, salvation is still has available and viable.  In fact, it’s not random at all.  If salvation is going to work, nothing can stop it from working.

This is how the Apostle Paul explains it:

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

Did you catch that?  Nothing, no rocky soil, thorny bushes, birds, evil ones, or anything else can separate us from the love of God.  It’s like God wants everyone to be saved and has systematically removed all the obstacles to salvation.  Not even death will keep us from bearing fruit.  Paul’s universal vision of God’s love runs contrary to the myopic agricultural parables in Matthew’s gospel.  God’s love must be available for everyone or this project, called the Christian church, doesn’t work at all.  When you ration God’s love, we’re just another a self-help group cooking pot-lucks, raising money, and doing charitable work.  If you’re rationing God’s love, you need to ask yourself, how can I ration what’s not mine to give away in the first place?

Paul knew these things.  Matthew’s followers were still trying to figure it out.  Sadly, I think many of our churches haven’t got past Matthew’s metaphors.  God’s love doesn’t stop among our rocky, thorny, crow infested prejudices.  Instead, that’s the first place we need to go and invite God in and look for the divine to take up residence and start to do a new, new thing.